The Only Five Comma Rules You’ll Ever Need

Hi Folks,

This is gonna sound WAY oversimplified, especially given the nineteen PAGES of comma rules in the HarBrace College Handbook.

But it’s true. If you use these five rules, you can’t go wrong:

1. Never put a comma between a subject and its verb or between a verb and its object.

Also you must realize that a subject may be compound, as in “John and Ray went to the store and bought a television and a radio.”

In the example, “John and Ray” is the subject. “Went and bought” is the verb. “A television and a radio” is the object.

Of course, you can also add to the size of the subject, verb or object and you can detract from the size of the subject verb or object.

2. When a subordinate clause introduces an independent clause, separate the two with a comma.

If you aren’t sure about clauses, Rule #2 is an example of itself, as is this explanation.

A clause has a subject and a verb but doesn’t stand alone, meaning it doesn’t make sense by itself. (A “phrase” is missing either a subject or a verb.)

In Rule 2, “clause” is the subject and “introduces” is the verb, but “when” keeps the clause from making sense by itself. Therefore it is “subordinate.”

3. Do NOT use a comma to separate the clauses when a subordinate clause follows an independent clause.

In Rule #3, “Do not use a comma” is an independent clause and the remainder is a dependent clause. This rule, again, is an example of itself.

As an interesting side note, the subject in Rule 3 is the implied “you.” The verb is “use.”

4. Use a comma before the appropriate coordinating conjunction to join two related sentences.

The coordinating conjunctions are for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. Remember the acronym FANBOYS. My female students used to love that acronym. By the way, you very seldom need a comma AFTER a coordinating conjunction, although that is a bad habit that some folks have developed.

5. Trite as it sounds, when you are in doubt about whether to use a comma, leave it out.

Believe it or not, most comma problems arise from the insertion of misused commas, not from their omission.

That’s it! The five rules of comma use. And really, there are only three.

The first one is necessary, numbers 2 and 3 are the same thing in reverse, and Rule 4 is necessary depending (in fiction) on how you want the sentence to flow.

And of course, the last one isn’t so much a rule as a warning. (grin)

‘Til next time, happy writing!
Harvey

I am a professional fiction writer. If you’d like to get writing tips several times each week, pop over to my Daily Journal and sign up. In the alternative, you can also click the Pro Writer’s Journal tab on the main website at HarveyStanbrough.com.

4 thoughts on “The Only Five Comma Rules You’ll Ever Need

  1. Thanks for the lesson, Harvey. I know I’ve gotten into the habit of putting a comma after the coordinating conjunction, just because I talk or think that way I guess. I’ll have to watch that, or my editor will get on me 🙂 Comma rules are difficult, mostly because of the nineteen PAGES of comma rules in the HarBrace College Handbook you mentioned. I’ve had some readers quote me line and text from that simply because my comma use wasn’t exactly what they thought it should be. I find I use commas for pacing, even if they don’t follow the exact “rules.” What are your thoughts on that?

    • Pacing is good. That’s why sometimes I use the third comma in a series (with “and”) and sometimes I don’t. Same reason I use sentence fragments in fiction. Pacing. My rule is always a look at balance. If it feels good (and if the “good” effect will outweigh any disruption it might cause in the reading), do it.

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